Just 25 miles from the Chinese border in northeast India, Tawang is a disputed city. A brutal war took place here 50 years ago. Now, it is filled with pilgrims, tourists and memories - and troops from the Indian army.
The small city of Tawang sits 3,000 meters above sea level at the foot of the Himalayas. Here, the chants of holy Buddhist monks echo across the mountains and valleys of the region. The monks here belong to the Mahayana, one of the principle branches of Buddhism.
Tawang is quiet now, but maintains a large Indian troop presence
The Buddhist monastery in Tawang is the biggest in India, and for a long time was one of the most important spiritual centers in the world. For all that, Tawang is still a quiet, secluded city. But when war broke out 50 years ago between India and China, Tawang found itself caught in the middle due to its militarily strategic and central location.
Chinese troops occupied large portions of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on October 20, 1962, and Tawang was first bombed, then rocked by mortal shells and sprayed with machine gun fire. Tawang remained under Chinese control for one month, until China declared an armistice on November 20, 1962 and withdrew from Indian territory.
Memories live on
The Tawang monastery is a symbol of India's still smoldering border conflict with China
Sanga Tsering was 25 when the war broke out. Today she can still see the day of occupation clearly before her eyes. "The city was officially overrun by the Chinese army," said the 75-year-old. "They came onto us like a flock of birds onto a rice paddy. Many soldiers lost their lives on both sides. People were scared and fled into the forests. They hid in caves and underneath large trees. I prayed to God that we would never have to live through another war."
Many of the older citizens of Tawang still remember the period of occupation. Tashi Gombu belongs to a group of citizens who personally experienced the invasion 50 years ago. "We were surrounded by Chinese army units. They were shooting at us from everywhere," he said in an interview that today is preserved in the city archives. The interview with Gombu was taken just a few days before his death in 2004. "The small Indian army unit that was stationed here fired back. Suddenly a bullet hit me in the hand and I passed out," Gombu saiid. "When I regained consciousness it was deathly still. All the soldiers from my unit were dead. But after a while I heard a noise that slowly came closer. As I wrapped myself up I saw that it was the Chinese soldiers impaling the dead Indian soldiers with their bayonets." Tashi Gombu was taken as a prisoner of war and was only released years later - severely traumatized.
A one-of-a-kind culture
The Dalai Lama brushed off Chinese protests to visit Tawang
The citizens of Tawang are, for the most part, Monpas. The Monpa ethnic group is comprised of approximately 80,000 people on both sides of the India-China border. They are proud of their independent culture. "The people in this region are Buddhist," said Keshang Dhondup, vice director of the city's cultural ministry. "They live mostly from cattle breeding and farming and, on top of that, are known for their paper manufacturing, wood carving and carpet manufacturing."
Today, Tawang is a popular tourist destination. The Buddhist monastery was founded in 1680 and at times has sheltered up to 600 monks. In 2009, the monastery was completely renovated. During that time, the Dalai Lama came to visit. Around 30,000 people came to hear his teachings.
End of a nightmare
Thousands of Buddhist monks joined the Dalai Lama for prayers in Tawang
Superficially, the wounds from the war appear to have healed in Tawang. Only the Indian army's strong presence in the region serves as a reminder of the still-smoldering conflict. China continues to claim the land as belonging to its "south Tibet region". In all, around 180,000 Indian soldiers are stationed in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. In the 10,000-person city of Tawang, the Indian army has constructed a training academy aimed at deploying soldiers at high altitudes.
The people in Tawang have grown used to the strong military presence. People still meet each other at the weekly markets; children play light-heartedly in the street. Life in the small mountain city goes on no differently than anywhere else in India. The citizens of Tawang are proud of their Indian identity. They feel safer having the army there - or, at least according to new home owner Sonam Tsering, who, for more than 100,000 rupees, just finished building his first house for his family. "I'm very happy because the kind of Chinese invasion that happened 50 years ago will never happen again," he said. "Today many people are paying out of pocket to build their own houses. That shows that we have faith in the soldiers stationed here."